When I recently put the final touch on a children’s book manuscript, I wrote to my mother in Florida: “Would you mind reading something I’ve just written?” I hadn’t done that in a long time. Mom is an evangelical Protestant, and that’s the tradition in which I was raised. But there has been some religious tension between us since I joined the Catholic Church.
“It is about a fictional pope and a cat he meets on the streets of Rome,” I went on. Mom loves children’s books, read hundreds of them to me 40-plus years ago, and once worked for the American Library Association in Chicago, so religious differences or not, she qualifies as an expert in the field. Also, Mom loves Pope Francis. Since Pope Francis was elected five years ago, Mom and I have found faith matters much easier to discuss.
“Sure, send it!” she wrote back with enthusiasm.
The following morning, she wrote to me again, having read my 64-page book.
“I cried, Jon,” she said. “I love it.” I was taken aback. But then she really blew me away: “You do realize, don’t you, that Margaret is Ana?”
Now, let me explain. Margaret is the name the pope in my book gives to the cat he adopts off the streets of Rome early one morning. Ana is the teenager my wife and I adopted one year ago. But until that moment, when Mom wrote it in that email, I had never made the connection; I hadn’t realized that Ana was an inspiration for what I thought had come simply from my imagination. Mom was right. (Maybe moms are always right.)
What I was fully conscious of while writing The Pope’s Cat, was a desire to teach our kids and grandkids about the pope, the papal office, the Vatican, even Swiss Guards and the Curia. I think the pope should be more than a photo on the fridge. I wanted to use fiction to entertain children who are just starting to read for themselves, and then subtly teach them a few things along the way.
So, the pope in The Pope’s Cat is kind, thoughtful, busy, and smart, and kids get to see what he does from day to day. They also see him feeling occasionally nervous, and once or twice even, annoyed. I hope that the pope feels real in The Pope’s Cat, like people they know in everyday life, but I also make sure that kids see how he is invested with enormous responsibilities. There are really good reasons why we have his picture on the wall, or his image on the fridge.
Margaret is taken by the pope to live inside the Vatican in the pope’s apartments. Like Corduroy inside the department store after closing, Margaret allows us to have an insider’s view of what happens. And then, like Curious George, Margaret gets into a bit of trouble. Things happen, after all, when a cat is allowed to wander the halls of the Vatican. She ends up front and center when the queen of England comes on a state visit. Margaret can be a bit of a troublemaker! This is disarming for kids. It allows them to relax, listen, and learn.
I love Rome, too, and I wanted to use this new series of books to gently teach a few things about the great city. There are a few Italian words and phrases in The Pope’s Cat. How else, for instance, could a pope convince a Roman stray to come to him, rather than run away, if not by speaking gently in Italian? And there are a couple of my favorite (now Margaret’s favorites) Italian dishes that are messily lopped at the pope’s table. Illustrator Roy DeLeon captures all these scenes with whimsy and appropriate detail.
I think kids — mostly first, second, third, and fourth graders — will enjoy Margaret and the pope in The Pope’s Cat. I hope that you — parents, grandparents, teachers, educators, and librarians — will get some fun out of it, too. Then, a few months later will come Margaret’s Night in St. Peter’s (A Christmas Story), in which Margaret and the pope introduce our kids to what one sees inside St. Peter’s Basilica, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, and the importance and meaning of Midnight Mass. What fun this is! I believe it’s possible to create books kids really want to read, that introduce them to serious things.
Editor’s Note: You can watch a trailer for the book here: